Nine Types of Light: A study

There are few bands I like as much as TV On The Radio. I once wrote 1800 words on one of their songs when their saxophone player dared me to. Their music has been in either the front or the back of my head since 2004 saw the release of their debut record, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. It's been with me lately because their newest and most-certainly-on-my-best-of-the-year-list record Nine Types of Light has been plowing through my subconscious leaving debris in its wake that I've been collecting in an attempt to understand it. it came to me a little while ago what I think the album was about though listening to the songs as singular entities kinda erases my assessment in small parts as I come to love the shit out of every song for the unique pleasures they each offer, I stand by my feelings about what the album as a single work of art represents. Note: I've had theories about art in the past, shared them with the artists and been totally wrong. But if I don't talk about them like I was speaking an objective truth it's a lot harder to write.
Dear Science, their 2008 record and the one that endeared them not just to critics but to the NPR set and who made it possible for them to sell out the House of Blues when last they came to boston, was an album about crisis. The walls were coming down, bombs were going off, lovers decided to brave it in bed together making just as much commotion there as the rioters outside. Nine Types of Light is the aftermath. The love is there but it's now being tested through times that neither could have guessed could be so bad. It's easier and more practical to see their world as just the one that we're living in now, but I find both more interesting and a little disconcerting that the idea of this album taking place in a deserted wasteland ruined by man's collective folly and populated by roving be-mohawked gangs and mutants isn't at all out of place. I bet Bayard Rustin and Harvey Milk and Susan B. Anthony all really hoped that by the year 2011, a year that doesn't feel realistic when written down, that people of different sex, race and sexual orientation would be living in harmony at least in fucking america for fuck's sakes. They were mistaken and in that respect we are living in a dystopian society. Turn on the news and you have a reason to throw your tv out the window in mental agony and rage. It's more comforting for me to fictionalize the struggles presented in Nine Types of Light. I place it next to The A-Frames' Black Forest as the second post-apocalyptic album I've encountered.

TV On The Radio's albums have followed a logical progression at least as far as narrative imagery conjured in my head. And is there any other way, really? Ok Calculator was life alone with a four-track, afraid to go outside, imagining what happens in the places you can see from your window. Desperate Youth is the loneliness of stepping outside and seeing modern life, of reflecting on the ugliness of the past, that the few people who share your opinions are all underground, slam poets fingering the triggers of unloaded guns. Return To Cookie Mountain is things starting to shift and not for the better. It's walking through pockets of a city on the verge of a failed revolution, run by a sadist with a child's IQ. People are rioting in the street and buying guns and forgetting how to love each other, forgetting that they need to, that it's more important than eye-for-an-eye retribution and tornados of violence and bombings. Dear Science is when there are just enough people to keep shooting at each other. Prophets are rising in isolated spots trying to sing the gospel of love and peace, but just outside are litter-and-body-strewn streets that paint too ugly a picture to paint over. All you have are people if you're lucky enough to still have them by your side. Nine Types of Light isn't yet at the rebuilding stage. It's the bitterness of people not trying to make things better, of love being all you have to live for. Throughout their oeuvre that's been the one constant, the diamond in the rough, and it's one the heroes of their records finally learned to polish and treasure.

The record starts and ends in a way with "Caffeinated" Consciousness. I'd put money on everyone's eyes being drawn to that title first as I was and noticing that it's an odd choice for album closer (They even called the first song on the album "Second Song" as if "Caffeinated"were there first and then moved at the last second.), but there's a method to it. Tunde Adebimpe evidently also found it slightly out of place there as he put it first in the film he co-directed that puts the album to images. The film that Nine Types Of Light evokes purely in a narrative sense would be either Doomsday or Tobe Hooper's Dance of the Dead, two films not unreasonably forgotten. But what I mean by this is that the world ended when Dear Science ended and now the protagonists are trying to live in melted and empty cityscapes and deserts patrolled by the mutated ghosts of the conservatives who pushed the button and put the statue of liberty up to her tits in sand. "Caffeinated Consciousness" is a way to alert you to the danger and it belongs in the beginning because it's the most instantly memorable song on the album in my opinion because it's one of the first songs that is in a style that TVOTR created for themselves out of many different genres that isn't the style they pioneered and perfected on their second album Return to Cookie Mountain. There's very little characteristic fuzz here, which is why opening the film with "CC" was a wise choice, but there's a line that makes its closing the album make sense. "On/I'm Optimistic! On Overload!" Whether it's "on" or "I'm" ultimately doesn't matter. Some people disagree about it. As we'll see, they both work.

"Second Song" shows Tunde being both more plain and clear than he's ever been, talking his way into the situation. "Confidence and ignorance approve me. Define my day today. I've tried so hard to shut it down, lock it up, gently walk away. Appetites and impulses confuse me." He's essentially talking over something with the listener, confessing the things that might make him slow or weak (human) because in this new world seconds count and you need to be on your toes and know the person your with intimately. Think Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris after leaving Jim's house in 28 Days Later but between two well-meaning and unfailingly nice liberals. "And then the night comes, I'm fiending like a pyro, And I know it stables my survival" it might get you killed but he can't give up his recklessness because "when there's music all around me" he remembers the world as it was. Giving up, being too cautious, forgetting to live, is not an option. Knowing the balance is key. The chorus is an inversion of the chords used in Dear Science's hit "Golden Age" both a signifier of how things have changed, and also an alert, a code or sign to survivors heading for safety. "every lover on a mission, shift your known position, livin' a lie! ...every lover on a mission, shift your known position to the light." There's freedom near by, you just need to know how to get there. You can love in safety and security, instead of in fear. Anyone who's seen enough post-apocalyptic films knows this is too often a mirage.

Lured in by the siren song they venture toward apparent safety. "Keep Your Heart" is both proof that these two will do anything to keep each other safe, but that they don't need whatever safety is being offered. They're too busy making promises to actually get to each other's cores. Though those promises are beautiful "I'm gonna keep your heart if the world all falls apart, I'm gonna keep your heart." This is them making love in a tiny oasis in the desert or an empty but once-well-furnished apartment left mostly intact. A stopover on their journey to a shelter. "You" is them once again on the road, the hot sun on their backs, arriving midway through and discovering the temporary paradise they've been looking for. I picture the kind of comforting debauchery and temporary comforts of most of these situations, an impressive beast until it flashes its even more impressive jaws and things take a turn. They have plumbing, beds, and a lot of like-minded, heavily tattooed survivors there too. This is where the production of the album becomes a crucial factor in interpreting the meaning. Here a thread-bare electric guitar conjures images of deserts and heat and a mock-slide guitar does the rest. There are instruments all over Nine Types of Light that make their first appearances on a TVOTR record and give the impression of having been assembled from what was left after the end came. This is what they had and they're making the most of it (the twelve-string and middle-eastern sounding guitar on "Killer Crane" are two other examples). They're making the most of the destruction. Hence "No Future Shock."

In the Nine Types of Light film, Kyp Malone imagined a dance contest to "No Future Shock," and I agree that there's no better visualization for it, I just put a different set of clothes on them. This is where Dance of the Dead and Doomsday are more helpful than either The Road or The Road Warrior. Those films don't get the bacchanal of those who've lived in nuclear fallout for years, adapting to it. They're more practical (and better movies, but I digress). "No Future Shock" is the revelry of the deranged survivors. The world has ended, they've been forsaken and forgotten, so "Dance! don't stop! Do The No Future Shock!" It's a seductive song (and an impossibly funky song I can't ever get out of my head) and the lovers join in the dance at first. Listening to Kyp Malone bark orders at partiers is too fucking cool to not want to dance to. "Killer Crane" is their life in this new world, professing love and promising that things will get better. The odd sounding guitar is the presence of their new home always beneath all they say and do, the new regulations and laws and the smell of other people who don't remember that things could get better. These two don't belong here because they have too much hope, they just don't see it yet. "Will Do" is doubt peering in through seeming perfection. It's hunger, it's other people taking liberties with you because there's no rule or law or defining moral except what the biggest man says. It's a place run like the talking points on Glenn Beck's chalkboard. Total amorality has its charms and it's tempting to give in to a lot of things. But they don't give up on each other. "New Cannonball Blues" has that perfect menacing quality. So much can have gone wrong. They might have transgressed, they might be on the run, they might be watching proof that these people aren't like-minded seekers of companionship but vampires after helpless mortals. Either way it's bad news, either way it's the blues. "It was written in blood before they wrote it in stone so sing it with me like its your own." There are tests that prove their commitment to the community and they can't do it.

"Repetition" is perfect. It's where the album is at its most dangerous, its most vicious and angry and Road Warrior-esque. "Repetition" of feet on the ground as they go on the run, repetition of the same mistakes that led someone to push the button, repetition of the hate that characterized the world that was obliterated, repetition of the pettiness that defined the creation of the great empires, monarchies, dictators and Fascists of the old world, our world. "I've abused my position, and it cost my friends and if the world keeps spinning I could do it again." The most untrustworthy are always in charge and they always manage to pit people against each other over imaginary lines in the sand. "What's the matter with your next-door neighbor?" When the song reaches it's second act, lights are flashing, vehicles are in motion, guns are going off again, destruction they thought they were done with. They escape, barely, with their lives. They have nothing else, but they had nothing inside either. From a hill, they see the city they've left behind: "Beverly Hills, burning off plastic, scrape it away." Luxury is a lie, comfort only at the price of forced order and cannibalism. "Beverly Hills, Nuclear, what should we wear? And who's for dinner?" The song has a melancholy swagger. They walk once again through the desert, the worst behind them for now, but they have no food, no water, no clothes but what they were, nothing but...each other. "Hold tight. Our love affair is writing our name in the sky...it's paradise." They only wanted safety to sleep next to each other without having to keep one eye open, but frankly having each other is enough. Even if they die from the heat, from starvation, having each other is enough. The story ends and everyone gets to imagine their own ending but Tunde sings on behalf of the author after the fact: "Gone optimistic. We're gonna survive" And so we come full circle. Sure you'd have to be on optimistic to see them living out there on their own, but these guys are optimistic. They have to be. They've been through more than I can even imagine. I have nothing but the profoundest respect, admiration and love for the members of TV On The Radio. A few listens to their album produced this narrative. They're geniuses who bring my brain to places it hasn't gone before and who put you in places of insecurity so that you can find yourself, answer questions you didn't realize were important. "CC" might not be the love song the story needed, but its the one we need. It's a two-chord wake-up call and like the album it closes, it's fucking mind-blowing and more important than any one song on it or any idea I might have about it. It's precious, so keep it close.

2 comments:

Johntdowney said...

I've stumbled upon your tiny corner of the Internet while searching for the proper lyrics to "Forgotten" (even Google wants me to search for 'burning of plastic' when it is so clearly 'burning off plastic') and find myself impressed by the thought you've poured into this post.

Nine Types of Light has prompted me to reevaluate TV on the Radio. I listened to Desperate Youth when it came out, but I never really went further than "Staring at the Sun." Now, their entire body of work is now on a constant shuffle!

Scøut said...

Thanks terribly! That's incredibly good of you to say!